Cancer survivor dedicates career to finding new treatments for other cancer patients

Imagine being diagnosed with cancer at 22. Imagine then going on to help save the lives of Kiwi kids with brain cancer.

That's exactly what Dr Lisa Pilkington is doing.

She spoke with Newshub's National Correspondent Amanda Gillies about her experience and work.

It started with a small lump in her glands. She wasn't worried. She was, after all, 22 - young, fit and healthy.

But eventually Dr Pilkington booked in to see her doctor and had it checked out. 

An inspection revealed the lump was close to her carotid artery and nerve, and it was agreed that removing it was the best option. Again, she wasn't overly fazed. 

But then came the call from the doctor. 

"I remember just - I know it sounds dramatic - falling to the floor. My whole world changed at that moment," she said.

Dr Pilkington had cancer - a rare form of it in her salivary gland. 

She wasn't prepared or ready for the devastating diagnosis. She felt too young, too healthy, and she was too busy starting her PhD in chemistry. 

But radiation was required and confronting questions about her mortality followed.

"Absolutely, it changes the way you view everything. You are facing your own mortality at a time when you think you don't have to be doing those sorts of things," Dr Pilkington said.

"You are thinking about your career and moving on to the next stage of your life and then suddenly you have this question about what your life is going to look like, is it going to be coming back, it's an uncertainty that never really goes away."

But despite some "scary moments", the cancer never came back. The surgery and radiation were successful.

And today, 13 years later and in remission, she is dedicated to helping and saving other cancer patients - more specifically she's working on therapy for an aggressive type of brain tumour that affects children. 

Currently, there's no known cure. 

"It's paediatric glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), which is an extremely aggressive brain cancer that has very poor health outcomes for children," she said.

Dr Pilkington is currently working on finding treatments for paediatric glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer in children.
Dr Pilkington is currently working on finding treatments for paediatric glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer in children. Photo credit: Newshub.

"We are trying to develop new treatments, new molecules to try to target specific types of enzymes that are commonly present in this type of cancer... eventually to become a treatment that can be used. 

"The idea is hopefully one day our research will be able to be used - or at least inspire further research - towards coming up with treatment options that are far more effective, and that can maybe cure or prolong the life of these children." 

Her work has been boosted by a six-figure grant from Cure Kids.  

"It's incredible, without their support, without all the work that they do, but without the grant they've given us, this would not be possible," she said.

Frances Soutter is the CEO of Cure Kids, and she told Newshub that Dr Pilkington's work provides  "much-needed hope" for young sick children and their families.

"She is just this groundbreaking role model who is passionate about science and loved science as a young girl, and as a cancer survivor herself, for her to end up in the area of research looking at these really nasty tumours called glioblastoma and knowing that she is working on targeted treatments to give these wee kiddies hope." 

Soutter said 49 "new and impressive" proposals were considered for their latest round of funding. 

"We send it out to the science community to say 'bring us your best and most innovative ideas that are going to make a material difference to child health'." 

On Sunday, eight grants totalling $1 million have just been awarded by Cure Kids.

The projects range from improving Type 1 diabetes for Māori and Pasifika kids, to a treatment for oxygen-deprived pre-term babies to prevent brain injury.

Over the past 53 years, more than $65 million in Cure Kids funding has boosted 700 projects, including the research by Dr Pilkington, now a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland.

"And it means that it's making research that we hope one day will be life-changing," she smiled.

Allowing a true survivor to help save lives.